419 (Animated Music Video)

Around the time Thumpermonkey Lives! was recording We Break Our Bread Beneath Her Holy Fire, I was keen to get videos created for some of the tracks. It dawned on me that this might be a good opportunity to learn how to use Adobe After Effects. Cost was a factor, but I wanted to try to use the ‘no-budget’ constraint to generate some unusual ideas.

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I’d already spent a few days learning how to use the basic functions of Adobe Premiere Pro by cutting a video for Whateley. The results, while amusing, were pretty lamentable. I ran out of enthusiasm half way through because the DV footage my ancient camera captured was pretty dire. I knew I’d have to approach this project somewhat differently, but I also didn’t want to spend loads of money on a new camera. I settled on the idea of constructing the whole thing out of photographs and found images.

I’d been loaned some ‘Learn After Effects’ DVDs, but I found that the online resources at Videocopilot were much more engaging and immediate. One drawback is that to anybody who has spent more than ten seconds on that site, it’s clear that a lot of the ‘plot’ points of my video (such as they are), are based on the technical exercises appearing therein. Having said this, it was great fun to make. Having a project to work on was helpful in creating mental links between the applications of different techniques,(rather than just working through the tutorials in a vacuum).

After working through Videocopilot’s basic tutorials, I moved on to some of the more specific exercises, in particular, the use of virtual cameras to make fake 3D spaces from still photographs.

A lot of the video was constructed by cutting out different levels of perspective from photographs, and then moving a ‘camera’ POV though these virtual dioramas. What is nice about this effect is that you can render in fake motion blur and depth of field. The distance that the ‘camera’ is from the layers of cut out perspective in 3D space can be utilised to achieve fake camera focus effects, all controlled by animated key-frames, (i.e. John Riley walking towards JSK Food and Wine at 3.48).


I storyboarded the whole thing in crayon, (this is practically true), and then gathered the photo resources I’d need. As well as using some photos I’d shot in Bosnia, Croatia and Yosemite National Park, many were shot in the equally exotic location of Mike Hutchinson’s house while he was on holiday. I took great delight in sneaking round his bedroom, leaving cans of Lech on his carpet, and arranging half eaten rustler burgers on his furniture. Thanks Mike!


I also found a lot of large usable images online; bits of the Codex Borbonicus for the intro, the spinning Mexica calendar wheel, a sinister looking sepulchre or two, and a gigantic rubber chicken which became a ritual altar. Finally, I spent a while dressing my friends up as monks, goblins, policemen etc, and taking photographs of them in compromising positions.

I used the storyboard to build about 100 background ‘scenes’, (each saved as an individual After Effects project), and then began animating the camera movement. I exported these ‘sets’ and loaded them into Premiere Pro in order to create the majority of a cut based purely on the environments. After checking these for pace and continuity, I started work on the characters and animated effects.

This meant spending a lot of time cutting out photos of my friends using masks in After Effects, and then applying deliberately rudimentary animation techniques. This was pretty much the digital equivalent of cutting arms and legs off of static photos, and then affixing them again with butterfly clips.

I knew from the start I wanted some video footage shot against a green-screen as well, and decided to build one in my bedroom. I thought the results would be appalling, and so was pleasantly surprised at how things turned out. After a bit of experimentation, I got the best results from £20 worth of green high-saturation cloth (from Ebay), a couple of halogen spots from Halfords, and a very understanding girlfriend who didn’t mind me turning our bedroom into an apple green Bedouin tent.

I reduced the captured footage in size so it looked halfway decent on a 16:9 SD template. Turning Rael into a series of tiny pixies informed the narrative as well. It seemed to make sense, (in my own fractured reality at least), to cast Rael as a manifestation of the Centzon Totochin; ‘400 rabbits’ the god of intoxication in Mexica mythology.

The Videocopilot lesson on motion tracking was helpful in creating the demon transformation effect. This effect is seen at 4.57 and also briefly be seen on my face at 4.21.


That tutorial covered the mapping of physical distortions and animated changes in hue to an ‘anchor’ on 2D moving footage, (in this case the eyes of a face). Normally this process is used to stabilise shaky footage, but this tutorial explains how you can get the coordinate data that the motion tracking process generates, negate the stabilitsation of the footage, and instead use it to ‘glue’ an effect on to the features of a face as it moves about the screen. It felt a bit cheap using this effect, because the Internet was already awash with clips by people who have used the tutorial to mutate various members of their families – but it made me laugh, so I included it anyway.

Another tutorial deals with particle systems – CG ‘objects’ that can be programmed to react to gravity and wind, (and take on the physical properties of  liquid, snow, dirt, leaves, etc). After Rael’s manifestation in the flat at 5.01, there’s a swirling energy field which is directly based on this videocopilot tutorial. This ‘energy vortex’ is made up of numerous different particle system elements, evolving 3D space.


I used elements of this for the subsequent appearances of the ‘Little Raels’ (from 5.08). Adding ‘dirt’ swirling around was a nice way of generating depth and space out of flat images.

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4 Responses to “419 (Animated Music Video)”

  1. […] in Matalan Mike Woodman's noises, pictures, dirty laundry, etc. « Other Music 419 (Animated Music Video) […]

  2. I’d love to see some “behind the scenes” photographs… but I don’t want to break the forth wall too much.

  3. Gareth Edwards Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Hearing about the Virtual Diorama AE technique is very interesting – I’ve been looking at camera mapping in Blender to do a similar effect from still photos (example here: http://vimeo.com/14851083).

    • Yes – that looks like it’s doing something very similar. With the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ music, was rather expecting a giant Gundam robot to leap out of the frame though 😉

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